Another interpretation of the Cula-Vedalla sutta (MN44)

Hi, ya’ll,

Brother_Joe recently made a post about the gradual path, which referenced this article. I was struck by this paragraph of that article:

The notion that samma-ditthi, the first-named stage of the eightfold path, corresponds to the attainment of panna (insight) is of great antiquity, appearing already in the Cula-Vedalla-sutta. In that sutta, a nun named Dhammadinna is asked to explain how the eightfold path is related to the well-known division of the practice into three categories, slla, samddhi, and panna (moral discipline, mental discipline, and insight). She answers that the two are related as shown in Table 4. This explanation entails a distortion of the sequence of listing: the first two path-factors have to be transferred to the end of the list. In spite of this, Dhammadinna’s interpretation has been widely accepted by commentators down to the present day.

According to that article, “right insight” originally referred to item 9 of the 10-fold path mentioned in a number of Suttas. However, as the 8-fold path became emphasized over the 10-fold path, right insight was redefined to refer to the beginning of the 8-fold path, including right view. The article appears to blame MN 44 (at least in part) for this misunderstanding.

This reminds me of this discussion on the ten-fold path, in which it was suggested that MN 44 was probably interpolated to support the idea that samma-ditthi (right view) is the same as paññā (insight).

And with that stroke items 9 and 10 of the 10-fold path are lost :cry:

However, upon closer examination of MN 44, I have another interpretation. It’s true that Dhammadinna used the term “paññā” in reference to the first two items of the 8-fold path. HOWEVER, towards the end, after discussing the Jhanas, Dhammadinna gives another sequence of phenomena (bold mine):

“Now what, lady, lies on the other side of pleasant feeling?”

“Passion lies on the other side of pleasant feeling.”

“And what lies on the other side of painful feeling?”

“Resistance lies on the other side of painful feeling.” [7]

“What lies on the other side of neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling?”

“Ignorance lies on the other side of neither-pleasant-nor-painful feeling.”

“What lies on the other side of ignorance?”

"Clear knowing lies on the other side of ignorance."

"What lies on the other side of clear knowing?"

"Release lies on the other side of clear knowing."

"What lies on the other side of release?"

"Unbinding lies on the other side of release."

“What lies on the other side of Unbinding?”

"You’ve gone too far, friend Visakha…

I highlighted how “clear knowing” (Vijjā) leads to “release” (Vimutti), which finally culminates in Nibbāna. It’s noteworthy that she states this sequence immediately after discussing the Jhanas. Likewise, on the 10-fold path, you’ve got right concentration, then right insight (nana), then right release (Vimutti). The difference is in terminology — while the 10-fold path uses the pali word “nana” in reference to the “insight” of “right insight,” MN 44 uses the word “Vijjā.”

Here is a Pali/English line-by-line translation of the Sutta.

I think the problem lies in the word “paññā.” In MN 44, it’s used in reference to items 1 and 2 of the 8-fold path. It is distinct from the “Vijjā” that is the compliment of ignorance and leads to release. The use of “Vijjā” as the compliment of ignorance actually makes a lot of sense, since “ignorance” (Avijjā) is derived from the same word.

Elsewhere, however, paññā seems to take on the meaning that Vijjā does in MN 44. Arhats are described as “liberated by paññā” or “perfected in paññā” (as opposed to Anagamis, who are perfected in ethics and concentration, but not paññā).



Hi TheSynergist

I appreciate the thoughtful post.

If I recall, from his article, or personal discussion with him ages ago, Dr Bucknell seemed/seems to believe that Right View is theoretical, but Paññā is confirmed by experience. I don’t like his translation of it as ‘insight’ in the quoted paragraph, but rather prefer ‘wisdom’, so we have distinct words for Ñāṇa and Paññā, but then there is vijjā, often translated as knowledge, which could be understood as theoretical only.

However we translate it, in the three trainings, Paññā comes after concentration (Samādhi), as vijjā does after jhāna, as Dhammadinna seems to acknowledge later in MN44, nicely pointed out!

I think this could be explained as, the linking or equating the first two items of the Eightfold Path with Paññā, was a later interpolation into or change of MN44.

I accept that Right View is probably theoretical and from further comparative study and possibly discussed in Dr Bucknell’s article. Right View and Right Aspiration are part of, what I think is, the missing mental aspect of ethics (sīla). Thus we have the Buddha going to the root of the problem from the start, faulty/unethical thinking, which leads to unethical behaviour in word and deed.

I hope that covers your points.

best wishes

Thanks for your thoughts, @Brother_Joe ! BTW I’m really glad that you mentioned that Bucknell article, because It thought it was really helpful in helping figure out an overall model for the path towards Enlightenment according to the Suttas.

I agree with you and Dr. Bucknell, that Right View is probably theoretical, while Paññā usually seems to be more experiential. IMHO this jives nicely with the stages of enlightenment: Faith followers(who have conviction in the truth of the Dhamma, but haven’t thought about it) -> Dhamma Followers (who have thought about the Dhamma…and hence have theoretical knowledge)->Stream winners + Once Returners (described as “perfected in Sila,” but not concentration or Paññā) -> Anagamis (“perfected in concentration”, but not Paññā) -> Arahats (“perfected in Paññā”). In this understanding, MN 44’s use of the word “Paññā” is a bit odd.

It’s certainly possible. It’s also possible that the original version of MN 44 is much the same as it is now, and it simply reflected an unusual regional/dialectal use of the term paññā.

Interestingly, the term “paññā” is used again in the Sutta, when Buddha refers to Dhammadinna as possessing “mahāpaññā.” Of course, it’s hard to say whether Buddha was referring to her analytical knowledge or her experimental knowledge. FWIW, Dhammadinna is described elsewhere as the nun foremost in “explaining the teaching” (not “high wisdom,” which is Khema’s honor). So it’s possible that Buddha was in fact using the term “mahāpaññā” to refer to her analytical knowledge in this context.

Another question: when “Paññā” is listed in the 5 spiritual faculties, is that meant to be experiental or theoretical?


Hi again

Yes, I certainly agree.

You might like the new visual summary table I just uploaded, which added the set of 7 Disciples at:


I agree, but for me this is evidence of later doctrine/views/interpretations, as, even though the Buddha encouraged use of local language for ‘concrete’ nouns (such as bowls), I don’t believe he would have accepted variance in use of mental or psychological terms. One example is the use of ‘kamma’: SuttaCentral.

To me that would make attaining Right View or Right Understanding, by conforming one’s understanding to the Buddha’s, practically impossible.

Best wishes

Interesting table, @Brother_Joe! In case you haven’t seen it, I made a post about the whole “7 disciple types” idea found in a variety of Suttas. To make a long story short, there is some evidence (according to the article I referenced) that this “7 disciple types” model may be a later development.

Good point. Thanks again for your input!

Hi again

I do not see the evidence and have commented on the linked to article.

best wishes

Also, praising (or criticising) people would seem to be undhammic speech, according to the Discourse on Non-conflict: SuttaCentral, rather we should just praise (or blame) behaviour and that is called teaching Dhamma.

Such praise seems common in EBTs and, for me, is part of the development of Early Buddhism (= early Buddhist propaganda), but is not practising Dhamma.

Well, to me it would be just like the Paññā of the Three Trainings and would be experiential. Thus I would not translate it ‘understanding’ (as, Right Understanding or Right View is part of ethics in thought, for me). Wisdom for me, is experiential, where knowledge is not, but the latter is a prerequisite for wisdom.

best wishes

Nice post, and interesting observations!

Yes, paññā does seem to be used differently in different contexts, and over time. I believe someone wrote on the evolution of the concept… ok I found it, in Williams’ Mahayana book. In case you’d like it for reference:

Wisdom is, alas, all too rare; prajnā is not. This apparent paradox should make us sensitive to the usual translation of ‘prajnā’ by ‘wisdom’.11 Prajnā is a mental event, a state of consciousness. Normally, at least in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist context, it is a state of consciousness which results from analysis, investigation. ‘Its function’, the Abhidharmasamuccaya tells us, ‘is to exclude doubt’. In this sense some Buddhist texts refer to a worldly or conventional (samvrti) prajnā, the understanding through investigation of, say, grammar, medicine, or some other mundane skill.12 These skills may or may not have religious significance, depending on how they are used. Texts also refer to ultimate (paramārtha) prajnā, the understanding which results from an investigation into the way things really are, what we might call ‘metaphysical’ understanding, the result of deep and sharp rigorous thought. In this sense there is the prajnā not only of Buddhists but also of rival non-Buddhist systems of thought - prajnā which apparently excludes doubt but is from a Buddhist point of view the result of a defective analysis. Thus it is possible to speak, as does the Sarvāstivāda-Vaibhāsika tradition, of faise prajnā (Jaini 1977). Since the principal concern of Buddhist writing is with the correct understanding of the way things really are, however, by an understandable process of thought ‘prajnā’ comes to be used for the correct discernment of the true situation, the ultimate way of things. So, prajnā is given simply as the discernment of dharmas, those ultimates that mark the terminating point of much of Abhidharma analysis, in the non-Mahāyāna Abhidharmakosa Bhâsya. It will be recalled from Chapter 1, however, that in the early Mahayana, as well as in some schools with no par ticular Mahayana association as such, the teaching of dharmas as those final realities out of which we construct the world was rejected in favour of a teaching of the emptiness of dharmas (dharmasünyatâ). Dharmas too lack any fundamental status and are not ultimate realities. Dharmas too can be analysed away. For these traditions the analysis commonly associated with the Abhidharma had ended too early, and thus such a prajnā was a defect ive prajnā, not the perfection of prajnā, or no real prajnā at all. Now prajnā is said to be a state of consciousness which understands emptiness (sünyatâ), the absence of ‘self’ or intrinsic nature even in dharmas. Since this prajnā is the principal concern of the Perfection of Wisdom texts, and since this prajnā, this wisdom, appears also to have been advocated in certain schools which were not in themselves anything to do with Mahayana, it is not surprising that there is a tradition in some circles of a Prajnāpāramitā in a Prakrit, that is, a non-Sanskrit, dialect belonging to the Pūrvasaila sect and not specifically identified at all as Mahayana as such.13 Wisdom (prajnā) in the Indo-Tibetan tradition is primarily an understanding that results from analysis. There is, however, a distinction familiar to philosophers between knowing that something is the case - such as knowing that Archibald is the husband of Fiona - and knowing by acquaintance. Knowledge by acquaintance here would be having, for example, the dubious pleasure of actually meeting Archibald. In speaking of wisdom as understand ing the way things really are there is correspondingly a distinction between knowing intel lectually, through deep, even meditative, analysis, the way things must really be (knowing that ‘Aha - this is the way things really are!’), and the ‘paranormal’ experience of a med itative absorption directed towards the results of such analysis - dharmas or emptiness as the case may be. We thus face another understandable shift in the meaning of prajnā. Prajnā is sometimes a meditative absorption the content of which is the ultimate truth, the way things really are. Thus the Mahâyânasamgraha can refer to the perfection of wisdom as ‘nonconceptual awareness’ (nirvikalpakajnāna). This is still prajnā, wisdom, for it is still a state of consciousness that results from analysis, although the analysis has been refined, as it were, out of existence, it has transcended itself, and the mind is left in one-pointed absorption on the results of analysis (see Chapter 3 below). Note, however, that this prajnā is nonconceptual and nondual, whereas the preceding examples have been conceptual. That there is a gulf between conceptual and nonconceptual appears to have led certain traditions, notably that of some Chan (Ch’an; Zen) practitioners in East Asia, to conclude that prajnā can in no way result from analysis, but rather is a natural response to cutting all analytic and conceptual thought.14There are nevertheless Indian bases and precedents for this (Williams 1980: esp. 25-6), although the particular emphasis on anti-intellectualism and cutting con ceptual thought in some Chinese traditions may have also been the results of broader Chinese, perhaps Daoist, influence (cf. the Daodejing s (Tao-te Ching) ‘The Dao that can be spoken of is not the eternal Dao’).

Thus far ‘prajnā’ and its perfection refer to interconnected forms of conceptual and nonconceptual understanding. There is, however, one further slide in meaning to be noted. By a shift, perhaps understandable in the context of meditation, ‘prajnā’ and ‘prajnāpāramitā’ come through nonconceptual and therefore nondual awareness to equal the content or object of such an ultimate awareness, i.e. here emptiness itself. Thus the Dazhidulun refers to the perfection of wisdom as the indestructible and imperishable ‘real mark of all the dharmas’. This is what is really the case, emptiness, the universal absence of any ultimate existence ‘whether Buddhas occur or whether they do not occur’.

Ultimate prajnā as understood by the Mahàyàna, and prajnāpāramitā, the perfection of wisdom, appear to be generally the same. Mahayana and non-Mahāyāna sources alike refer to a number of perfections (pāramitā) mastered by the Bodhisattva as he or she follows the long path to perfect Buddhahood. The most well-known list in Mahayana sources contains six: giving (dā a), morality (or ‘precepts’; sī a), endurance (ksānti), exertion (tnrya), meditative concentration (dhyâna), and wisdom (prajnā).15 The perfection of wisdom is primary; it is said to lead the other perfections as a man with eyes leads the blind (Madhyamakâvatâra 6: 2), although later writers in particular are sensitive to the suggestion that wisdom is sufficient unto itself and the other perfections are unnecessary. Candraklrti, in his Madhyamakâvatâra, distinguishes between mundane or ordinary perfections, and supramundane perfections (1: 16). The difference is that the supramundane perfection of giving, for example, is giving with no conception of the fundamental real existence of giver, gift, or receiver, that is, it is giving in the light of perfect prajnā.

Generally, therefore, the perfection of wisdom is that wisdom which goes beyond the wisdom of the world and beyond also an imperfect wisdom associated by the Mahayana particularly with certain Abhidharma scholars who had put forward a plurality of dharmas as true ultimate realities composing the conceptualized everyday world. The perfection of wisdom transcends their wisdom, both in terms of its more refined analysis and also because it occurs within the context of the extensive and compassionate Bodhisattva deeds, the aspiration to full Buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings.

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Wow, that was a long and interesting quote. First time I’ve heard of anyone apart from me talking about semantic change in Buddhism, which I certainly think needs to be considered, just that I’d focus on what is called the early texts.

The MN44 analysis re the three trainings and the N8FP, may have been inserted at a time panynyaa had more of a theoretical understanding. Possibly later than the three trainings were taught, or originally the third of the three was not called panynyaa. I think it matters not, just as long as one distnguishes theoretical understanding (knowledge?) from experiential knowing (wisdom?).

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Revisiting the topic, I notice that there is a Chinese parallel to MN 44, MA 210. I’m curious what word(s) it uses?


I’d like to check it out, but seems I can’t get the chinese texts in SC on my phone. I’ll be back at my normal computer in about a week . Hopefully I’ll remember then, or someone else would have already checked. :slight_smile:

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Hi again

I eventually got back to this, but now I am on a recycled replacement computer and cannot seem to display the Chinese texts on SuttaCentral.

Does anyone know a link which explains how to set it up now? It seemed easier on an earlier version. I have downloaded, what I believe was necessary for the job.

best wishes